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Fashion and Religion

an unhappy couple
Matthias Smalbrugge
5 Jan 2017
Faculty of Theology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Fashion and religion; the relationship between these two markers of identity is far from obvious in the 21st century. Both, clearly, are strong elements of one’s identity. Yet, they do not always seem like happy partners. Even before the ubiquitous burkini debates, a French girl was sent home from school because she wore a skirt that was considered to be too long. The decision to wear this skirt was, of course, her own personal choice, which she defended on the basis of her individual right; but, in the eyes of the principal, the skirt represented the girl’s religious convictions and, indeed, was not just a matter of personal taste and preference. These debates about fashion and religion are by no means just a French particularity. European society in general is grappling with the veil and the burka, and many countries have legislated against their use. So the first observation must be that, apparently, religion can collide with fashion and that religion can collide with national identity.

This observation brings us, naturally, to consider the three essential elements of an individual’s identity: nationality, dress, and faith. Each of these seems to assert its own independent dominance, not allowing the other elements to infringe on its domain.  In France, religious conviction is supposed to be entirely divorced from notions of national identity. In contrast with the UK, where the Anglican church is the established religion, religious symbols are not allowed to be visible in France’s public high schools: no crosses, no veils, and so on. As national identity prevails over religion, a skirt considered to be too long can be banned from school. Yet, on the other hand, faith also asserts itself in the domain of fashion. Several religions oblige women in particular to wear certain clothes, restricting personal choice in matters of dress. The most famous examples of these obligations are of course the Muslim veil, but also the wig of Orthodox Jewish women (though the tradition also obliges Orthodox Jewish men also to dress in a specific way). Think, too, of the hats Protestant Orthodox women are obliged to wear in their churches.

So what is this all about? Isn’t fashion just about personal choice, about beauty, about the way you want to look and to be looked upon? The answer, in a straightforward sense, is yes. But herein lies the difficulty: fashion isn’t only about beauty. It is also about wanting to be seen, wanting to be attractive, wanting to show who you are. You wear a tie or you don’t. You dress formally or casually. You choose one clearly identified style, or you mix and match a range of styles. Moreover, fashion is also about suggestion, about seduction. Seduce as you want it, the way you want it. Choose what you want. Western art has always promoted fashion as an element of beauty, and a matter of aesthetic taste. There were times, of course, when religion also had notions of beauty at its core, along with knowledge, and practising the moral good. But, more recently, fashion and religion have come to represent the extremes of our cultural reality. They seem to collide and compete as elements of identity.

Identity: that’s what it’s all about. We’re no longer talking about knowledge, the good, and the beautiful, but about identity. Thus, all three elements mentioned above have sought to become the ultimate arbiter of identity: national culture, fashion, and religion. This, clearly, is a cause for regret. Identity is a mixture of elements – some collective, some personal, some inherited at birth, and others selected by choice. The real debate should deal with the questions that matter: about the role of individuality, of community, of personal freedom; about freedom of thought and of expression.